I took Thunor the next day and bid farewell to Legolas and Gimli. Gimli was unruffled by my change of heart, and Legolas only dipped his head in acknowledgement of my decision. I said my goodbyes to Treebeard, too and thanked him for his help. He hrummed for a time before wishing me well.
I saddled up Thunor and walked him back through the forest, following Legolas’ rough directions to the east. It had been a long time since I had traveled alone, and while at times it was lonely, I found I appreciated the space to think. I spent it reminiscing, singing to myself, and planning out where I was going and what I was doing.
Having little direction had always been terrifying to me. Maybe I was a bit of a control-freak, or maybe spontaneity had scared me, but I’d always had a guiding idea behind my travels. Now I’d abandoned it and all I had was the bare bones: go back to Gondor, find Boromir, and pick and plant a life, as Treebeard had told me. Easier said than done.
For once though I didn’t feel particularly discouraged. In fact, my mind and heart were clear of the doubts about my place, my future, and my choices that I’d harbored for years, and that seemed to give everything a glow.
When I came out of the canopy of Fangorn Forest a few days after leaving Gimli and Legolas, I walked into the kind of landscape that’s rocky and uninspiring. The grass was the pale brown of plains constantly buffeted by too much wind and too little rain, and the sun burned down hot on the endless lands where little beauty abounded and even less flourished. It wasn’t as majestic as Fangorn, as lively as Gondor, or as picturesque as Rivendell, but in that moment I loved it nonetheless. I loved it because when I mounted up on Thunor and spurred him to gallop, what was dull and plain was breathtaking because it was freedom. I was galloping across open land, beholden to no one, and I could do anything and go anywhere and suddenly… Middle Earth was at my feet and nothing was holding me back now.
As Thunor thundered across the dirty blond grasslands, eating up land and sky, I started to laugh. The wind caught the sound and threw it behind me, throwing it so far away that I hoped a small echo reached my family. They might never know how happy Middle Earth made me, but making the choice to stay felt right. I would let happiness drive me now, not fear and insecurity.
I rode my way south, and when I didn’t strike the Limlight River I determined I’d veered southeast in the forest and was now somewhere in the Wold. I rode south and down through East Emnet, going once so far east I caught glimmers of the Anduin, and I turned back west and south to avoid the hills. I camped when I wanted, confided in Thunor at my leisure, and ate my dried meat and stale bread not quite with relish but with pleasant familiarity.
I had meant to go around the hilly region near the great waterfall in the Anduin. It was harder to ride through and it was where Boromir had been killed originally so I had no great desire to be there. My attempts to go west though were tempered by fears of going too far and ending up closer to where the bands of wild men traveled, so I didn’t push as hard west as I should have. One sunny afternoon, plodding around boulders and shrubs and watching a distant herd of deer grazing, I came above a high crest on the ridge and beheld something I’d never seen before.
It was the two great statues of Gondorian kings that Boromir had told me about, flanking the sides of the biggest waterfall in Middle Earth. Each had a hand out as though to stop invaders from entering Gondor, garbed in rippling cloaks and mail with elaborate helmets so high up I’m sure only the Eagles could have nested there. In the shadow of some of the greatest stonework I’d ever seen, I felt a flush fill me again at this world I was in. I decided to make camp early and relax in sight of those sentries.
I dismounted, removed Thunor’s tack, and prepped my camping spot. As I dug through my saddlebags to find canteens and food my hand found the hard plastic of my phone. Gently I pulled it out of the bag, followed by the jeans and waded up t-shirt I had somehow kept through years of travel. There was also, deep at the bottom of the bag, I small nickel and a mirror. The keys… I remembered slowly, I’d given them to Bryce and Ysmay.
I sat down carefully and cradled the bag in my lap, taking all the pieces of my old life out one by one. I laid them all out on the hard grass and stared. The jeans were faded and wrinkled, the shirt stained beyond saving. My phone was deader than a stone, and the mirror and nickel were dirty but rubbing them with my fingers returned some of their original color. I ran my fingers over the button of the jeans, the machine-perfect seams, and the even lines of the t-shirt. I didn’t need these things anymore. I would never wear their like again.
I folded the t-shirt and jeans neatly and slowly picked up the nickel.
I couldn’t even remember why I’d kept it or how it had managed to stay with me all this way. It still had those perfect ridges around the circumference, and the tiny Latin letters were all but hidden under dust but still raised under my fingertip. It wasn’t worth much at home, but it was worth even less here, and I didn’t think I needed a lucky coin anymore, if it had ever been that.
I tucked it into the pocket of my jeans, slipped my cell phone and all the memories I couldn’t handle into the folds of my shirt, and picked up the last piece.
The mirror was a cheap thing I’d gotten at a market. The jeweled design on the cover was pocketed with dirt and missing pieces, the metal tarnished. It still popped open though, and I slowly took in my face in a reflecting glass smoother than any human one in Middle Earth. I had not seen my reflection so clearly since I was last in Rivendell, and I hadn’t looked long when I’d shown Éowyn the mirror in Edoras.
But now I looked and I was changed. My face was tanned and freckled, my lips fuller and the color in my cheeks stronger. The nose I’d always worried about didn’t bother me at all, hidden as it was beneath a gaze brighter and sharper than I’d ever seen.
This wasn’t the same Maddie my parents and sister had known. I stared at my reflection and said out loud, “Staying in Middle Earth is the right choice.”
Burying my home entirely wasn’t though. I put the mirror back in my bag.
The hillock I was on wasn’t the highest, nor was it particularly notable at all, having a few shrubs and not even a tree at the top. It was in full view of the Pillars of Kings though, and it was here that I stood up again, took a deep breath of Middle Earth air, and started digging.
I had only my hands and a small spoon for eating, but the labor didn’t matter, it was the meaning behind it that did. I dug through the hard packed earth at the top to the softer, moister dirt below, and then below that to where the worms slithered through. And once the hole was clear and deep enough, I took my folded clothes and my phone and laid them to rest at the bottom. Then I covered them back up.
Goodbye Modern Earth.
I was running low on supplies when I stumbled on a small Rohirrim village. They were able to tell me that I was east of Edoras, and it would be faster to ford the Entwash and continue to Gondor than stop there. I wanted to see Éowyn and tell her I was staying, but I also didn’t want to break my momentum, so I forged on. I would send her a letter, or better yet, go to her wedding celebration in Minas Tirith and surprise her.
I left the next morning and galloped through plains that turned green and flowering as I approached the river, following the same path across I’d taken before. Then it was several more days towards the White Mountains before turning east to ride along the range towards Minas Tirith.
People traveled along this road with more frequency than I’d ever seen. Even though I’d left my fiery cloak in Minas Tirith people still recognized me a few times, and with them traveled news of my return. I had no idea of this until still days outside of the city when a trotting group of guards in shiny silver armor and black capes came up to me on the road.
“Hail, Lady Maddie!” the one at the head cried. “We are of the fourth legion of the King, guards of the White City. King Aragorn has bid us accompany you.”
Other travelers stopped to gawk as Thunor slowed to a stop, huffing impatiently. “How did you know I was going to the city?”
“Rumor had reached us of your arrival. We will guard you anywhere you go in the kingdom, milady,” the guard replied promptly. I sighed, but was actually glad for the company. Traveling alone was invigorating, but it did get lonely.
Together then, they rode with me and shared their fresh food as we headed back towards Minas Tirith, staying at inns along the way. None of them loosened up much, but they did tell me what news they’d heard. Most of it was about the rebuilding effort, but there were nuggets about Boromir’s leaving and plans regarding Faramir’s return.
The city was bustling when we rode in, the White Tower almost blinding in the bright afternoon sun. My contingent of guards cleared the way quickly and soon we were riding up the levels to nearly the top where someone must have gone ahead and warned the king. It wasn’t Aragorn waiting for me though, but Arwen.
“You have come back,” she said with a smile as we clicked to a stop on the cobblestone outside the residential quarters on the sixth level.
“I made my decision,” I answered, dismounting. The guards were all staring at the queen and none had gotten down from the horses. I didn’t know Arwen well at all, but she was smiling at me and it made her face shine with warmth. It was strangely motherly.
“My heart is gladdened for you. I, too, know how heavily such a decision weighs.” She dismissed the guards with a wave and they took Thunor with them to the stables. Arwen walked with me into the hallways heading toward the room I had occupied before. “Lord Boromir will be pleased.”
“He is here?”
She shook her head just slightly, silky black hair never clinging, flowing like her gown with her movements. My hair, I realized at that moment, was a nest. I had bathed at the inn last night, but cantering all day to reach the city had turned it into a giant knot. “He has gone to Osgiliath to begin rebuilding and to organize the forces there to clean up the orcs left in our lands.”
“He must be terribly busy then,” I said for lack of anything else. I was still going to see him; I knew that for sure as we entered my old rooms. The bed was still neatly made, and my cloak hung in the closet. Seeing all these things I’d left half-believing I’d never see them again, I had to smile as I touched just the outer edge of that ridiculous red cloak.
“Not so busy for you. I will gather a wardrobe for you and send you on to Osgiliath. If you are willing, much work will be needed there. The city was destroyed many times.”
“I’m no city-planner,” I protested, even as Arwen signaled to a maid down the hall for hot water.
“Neither is Lord Boromir, and while we have architects and masons there, many decisions are made by him alone. He must also run an army however, and doing both is difficult.”
I was suspicious, but Arwen waved the maids through to the bathing room and walked me to the window. There she paused to take in the same view I’d spent many hours lying in bed staring out at: mountainside, city, and later tonight, stars that were getting more familiar with each day.
“It was the easiest choice in the world to be with Aragorn,” she started softly, looking at me gently. “But the choosing was the only simple part. I must carve the rest of the way myself. You do not have to stay in Osgiliath, nor do you have to help rebuild the city. You may do as you like.” Arwen smoothed a hand down my cheek. “But it shall give you a handhold with which to grasp.”
She smiled, and I felt an answering one on my face because of how beautiful she was. Then she swept out of the room and I sunk into a luxurious bath and an ocean of thoughts.
Three days of leisurely soaks in the hot water and a lot of back and forth and pros and cons lists, and I was ready to ride to Osgiliath. I had been hoping to go alone, almost craving the freedom between the two cities, but the risk of orc attacks were great enough that Aragorn insisted I go with a group of soldiers who were going to reinforce Boromir’s troops. I gave a moment’s thought to just leaving regardless of what anyone told me like I had before, but people would actually recognize me now.
“Milady,” the captain greeted, dipping his head and spear from horseback as I entered the courtyard near the gate to the lower levels, Thunor proudly trotting behind me on a lead. He’d just been brushed and gleamed like a prize-winning horse, flaunting his glimmering sides. I rolled my eyes at his antics and accepted the step up on the mounting block.
“It is two days ride to Osgiliath and we had best be cautious. Orcs have been sighted along the river.”
I nodded and mounted up. I let the first three soldiers lead the way, with two along my sides, and then three more in the back. I felt like a prisoner under guard, but they would only hold that formation while in the city. After that I’d be free to outrun them on Thunor.
Together we rode out from Minas Tirith, high towers flashing in the dawn light, making light conversation about the recovery from the war, some of the men’s families, the places I had seen. They were friendly enough for the short trip to Osgiliath, or as many of the men called it, the City of the Stars. I realized as we rode, that I’d never been this far west. The new earth to be trampled was exciting.
By morning of the next day the broken towers were well within sight, rising like jagged spikes in the horizon. The city was split in half by the river, the closer half shorn down to a single level, like a man cut at the knees. The eastern part was a burnt out husk of rubble, having born the brunt of the attacks. Between the orcs and the Gondorians everything should have been gravel but the main order of the city remained. There were tall columns defying the devastations around them, a part of an aqueduct still left, and some homes that had been fixed up enough to house soldiers.
No one paid us much mind as we trotted in, not even as my every thought burned with what I’d tied to my saddle straps that morning. Some of the soldiers with me had eyed it and smiled, but no one said a word. We rode in and slowed as we reached the center of the city. It was on a spit of land sticking out on to the river, with the command center marked by a flapping Gondorian flag above it. We dismounted outside this tent and one of the soldiers hurried inside.
“Are these all the forces?” I asked, wondering if I should dismount too.
The captain trotted closer to me. “Nay milady, these are but the strategists, some officers, and the masons. Most of our forces lay outside the city, ready to defend it from attack.”
“Are attacks frequent?” I asked, shifting on the horse. I didn’t really care about his answer, because my fingers were tingling so hard I had to clench the reins.
“Small raids, nothing you need fear.”
The swirling in my stomach wasn’t from fear as I turned back to look at the morass of people all working to protect and rebuild this city. I shifted in the saddle, almost unable to sit still. Boromir was somewhere around here, hopefully waiting for me. Hopefully, I thought, then tried to banish the doubt. It had barely been six weeks since I’d left. Everything would be fine.
“Lady Maddie,” a leather-clad messenger beckoned, “the Prince is this way.” It took a moment to realize he meant Prince Boromir, and while my heart rate kicked into high gear I wondered how he took to the moniker. Probably more gracefully than I had taken to my title.
I guided Thunor through the maze of tents and workshops, all busy belching smoke and clouds of stone dust as the artisans worked, and ringing with the sound of metal on metal as soldiers sparred and fixed armor. It wasn’t as familiar a place to me, but I felt a warmth in my gut that it one day might be. Finally we stopped at a tasseled silver tent right alongside the river with a small courtyard in front. I recognized Boromir’s horse tied up at a post outside.
The messenger disappeared back into the maze as I jumped down and Thunor immediately ambled over to steal the other horse’s water. I smoothed my hands down my dress, tried in vain to tuck away the hair falling out of my braid, and marched in. I assumed someone had announced me so I ducked under the second awning into the interior room.
He had his back to me while scribbling a note on a large map on the wall, and his shirt was untucked with his pants loose. He hair was even unbound. It was the most relaxed I’d ever seen him.
“Boromir?” I asked.
“Leave the report there,” he said, studying the map. It looked to be the lands outside the city, carefully marked with landmarks and notations.
“Boromir,” I repeated, this time a bit more playfully. I tried to hide the huge smile on my face but it was futile. My whole body was tingling now.
“Hm?” he turned and his breath caught as he saw me. I guess no one had announced me after all. “Maddie?”
The moment I laid eyes on that face I was suddenly unable to think of any of the clever greetings I’d thought up on my way here. His expression was so perfectly caught in happy surprise that I’m sure it didn’t matter anyway.
“I'm back,” I said like a dolt.
“For good?” he asked, dropping the quill on the table and rounding it. Then he seemed to realize he wasn’t properly dressed by Gondorian standards and hurried to shrug his coat back on.
“For good, mostly,” I practically chirped. I now knew what a cup overflowing with happiness felt like as we both looked at each other breathlessly. “Lady Arwen said I might be able to help you here with the city.”
“You would do this? Help to build the city back to its former glory?” He’d gotten the coat on by this point but it was left unbuttoned like he’d forgotten halfway through.
“If you trust me to. I hardly think I know how, but I’ve visited quite a few cities if that qualifies me.” I felt a flush on my cheeks at the way we continued to not talk about the last words we’d shared.
“I trust you to have the best intentions,” he said earnestly.
“Intentions won’t get me far.”
Boromir looked questioningly then. “That’s all you need to start.”
We both stopped, but he seemed to be holding himself back. I ached for a hug, for something, as Arwen said, to grip here in Middle Earth, so I took a few steps forward and wrapped my arms around him.
He immediately softened and I pressed my cheek to his chest as his big arms went around me too. He smelled like oil, a faint tinge of metal, and Boromir, and I knew it would be okay now. I had a place to plant my forest. “Thank you for offering me a home.”
He coughed embarrassedly and we politely separated. I felt my ludicrous grin from early soften to one of affection as I looked at him. His cheeks were tinged with the slightest bit of red but he looked me steadily in the eye. “Gondor is your home, and I stand by my prior words.” There was a half second pause where I almost opened my mouth to ask the question outright when he went on. “I’ll arrange for quarters to be made up for you and your things brought there. It’ll be temporary until something more permanent can be set up. Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to the artisans and show you what plans we have so far.”
I nodded, and we both smiled stupidly at each other again. “That sounds good. I wouldn’t mind stretching my legs a bit anyway while they settle things.”
He nodded, holding the awning for me as he showed me out. “Just be careful not to go to the outskirts of the city. The structures are not all stable either.”
We left the tent to see just two guards at the entrance to another tent and Thunor sniffing around Boromir’s destrier. I’d almost forgotten my surprise in my excitement to see Boromir. He was a man of action more than words, as I’d learned, and I wanted to show him in a way he’d understand best.
I made a few clicking noises to get Thunor’s attention and when the horse turned I felt Boromir’s stiffen beside me. When Thunor approached us, Boromir’s hand went to the handkerchief tied around one of the saddle straps. It was a fine white silk one with a dark grey embroidered edge. I had fingered it many times since he’d given it to me when I left.
“Arwen told me it was traditional,” I said, biting the inside of my cheek so I wouldn’t laugh nervously and mess this up. “You wore my favor, so I wore yours.”
“Yes,” he said, “she’s right.” There was a rueful smile on his face and his hand slipped into his pocket and pulled out a crinkled but familiar pink ribbon. We both looked at each other and I wondered if I could kiss him. “I will see you for supper, I hope?”
“Of course,” I said, biting my lip and then accepted his hand up to mount, letting the moment slide. The touch lingered for a half-second, and I squeezed his hand. It had to be the most handsome smile I’d seen on him that I got back for that. Then he stepped back, and with a few words to the guards I was led further out from the main encampment to a temporary tent they’d set up for me. I had too much energy to sit though, so I dropped my bags and meandered back out.
I wandered the city, clambering over rubble, peeking into entryways, even finding the remains of what was once a sprawling garden, now dried out and overgrown. Eventually I found my way to a bell tower on the water still left standing. It didn’t look safe, but I wanted to see this city I was making my home, and I wanted to see this world I had finally chosen.
I climbed up, choosing my steps carefully, hugging the wall so I didn’t fall, and catching glimpses through the holes in the sides of the building of blue sky and white stone and people growing smaller as I climbed higher.
At the top, the bell itself was dented, rusted, and fallen, lying on its side in the dust. There were bits of stone and marble scattered about, so I shuffled carefully to the edge and looked out across a vista I had seen so many times before and still could not fully appreciate. On one side, looking south, the river wound into the mountains, disappearing into a haze of golden earth and blue sky. To the west lay Minas Tirith I knew, though I couldn’t see the twinkling of the city yet. The sun was setting on that side, spreading warm colors across the canvas of the heavens. North, most of the city lay out before me, roads twisting and turning, tents poking up among the debris, flags waving.
And east laid the dark mountains of Black Lands and the army. Cooking fires among the encamped soldiers were lighting up as the shadows grew long on this side. I looked at the dark clouds over the darker lands and thought about how fantastical it was that I stood on a bell tower in Osgiliath here in Middle Earth looking at Mordor. This tower would be my first project to fix.
I felt so happy to have something to look forward to, to have friends, to have a whole world that I finally belonged in. All the clamoring questions were quiet finally. I leaned out on the ledge and closed my eyes, turning my face up to the setting sun.
“Why did I forget? Why didn’t I remember Lord of the Rings until I talked to Gandalf?” I asked the wind. It blew my words out over the ramparts and into the distance.
“Why did I come here?” The wind blew those away too.
“What do I do now?” The wind blew my words back at me this time.
I knew there was a mythology here in Middle Earth. I knew there were some form of gods and there was magic. Whether or not I ever understood that or those questions didn’t matter really, as I was learning. What mattered were my choices and my deeds.
I exhaled and went back down the tower to start my new life.